When you listen to our podcast (coming next week) on Poldark (2015), the “hot men scything in late 18th-century Cornwall” miniseries currently airing in the US on PBS, you’ll hear that I had some questions about the women’s costumes. Mostly, they can be summed up as “relatively good generic late 18th century,” catching some of the trends of the later 1780s, but missing others. I thought it would be interesting to compare the costumes worn by Poldark‘s women to contemporary images (i.e., to the time and place of Poldark). Today, we’ll look at the upper-est class ladies: Elizabeth, Verity, and (permanent bitchface neighbor) Ruth Teague. In future posts, I’ll tackle the older generation (Mrs. Chenowyth, Mrs. Teague, and Aunt Agatha), then the slightly-less-fancy Demelza, Keren, and Margaret (I’m leaving Demelza til last, so as to avoid more spoilers for Americans).
The first series (now airing in the US on PBS) starts in 1783 and covers a few years (the first book is specifically 1783-87, not sure how the TV series matches with that end date).
Spoiler warning: I’m NOT going to give away any plot points, but I WILL be showing outfits from episodes that haven’t yet aired in America. So, if you prefer to be surprised by new outfits, then I’d suggest waiting to read this post until after the series finishes.
Fashionable English Dress of the Mid-1780s
Fashion in England in this period was in a time of transition. Gone was the Rococo frilliness of the mid-century French styles. “English” dress was all the rage — even in France, which was enamored of the more country way of living in England. Practical dress worn for riding, hunting, and other outdoorsy pursuits influenced women’s fashionable clothing, which became much more streamlined, tailored, and menswear-inspired.
Of course, those outfits aren’t being worn for the same occasion. We can also compare Madame de Pompadour (on the left, above) with Mrs. Hallet below. They did get frilly in the 1780s, but when they did, it looked more like this:
Now, before you go getting stressed, yes I know:
- Poldark is set in Cornwall. We’re in the middle of nowhere here.
- Nobody (among the upper classes) in Poldark is doing well financially.
- Hey, at least there are
nofew back-laced bodices to annoy us! I’m not complaining, just edifying.
So to compare the most upper-class of ladies in Poldark, I tried to find imagery that might reflect women who weren’t the pinnacle of English society (not the queens, duchesses, even countesses or any titled ladies) but instead those of a more modest sort. I have had to include a few images that stretch these boundaries, just to make a few points.
All this being said, it’s not a high-resolution image, but I’d like to offer this:
Portsmouth isn’t in Cornwall, but it is a town on the southern coast of England, and this is right in the appropriate date range. This is a cartoon, so nothing is super realistic, but you can still get a sense of the wardrobes of a nice cross-section of people. For now, notice the well-dressed lady in white on the left — she’s very much wearing the same kinds of things seen in contemporary paintings and fashion plates. Compare her with Catherine Clemens, painted in 1788, and you’ll see parallels in terms of silhouette, the color white, the long sleeves, the sash, and the large hat.
But let’s get a lot more specific, shall we?
1780s Fashion Basics
The prototypical dress style of the 1780s in England was called a “nightgown” (Buck, Dress in Eighteenth-Century England, 45). No, this wasn’t worn for sleeping or even for evening, it was simply the term used. It’s better known today by its French name, the “robe à l’anglaise.”
The nightgown or anglaise has the following common features. There were lots of variations, so read all of this with “usually” inserted, and I’ll get to the variations in a bit.
In front, the nightgown had a fitted bodice with a low scoop neckline and V waist. It closed in front, often overlapping at the center front. The sleeves could be elbow- or wrist-length (a newer style), and were relatively fitted to the arm. The skirt was pleated to the waistline of the bodice, and fell to the ankles; it was open in front to show an underskirt called a petticoat.
In back, the neckline was higher and could be either squared off or rounded. The bodice waistline came to a V point. It could either be cut totally separate from the skirt (as on the right, a newer style) or with a pleated center back that connected into the skirt (as on the left, an older style — today we call this “en fourreau,” but it’s not a period term) (Waugh, Cut of Women’s Clothes, 72).
If we look more specifically at ladies from about (or slightly above) the class level of Poldark‘s upper-class ladies, you will see many wearing nightgowns.
Poldark‘s highest class of ladies — Elizabeth, Verity, and Ruth Teague — all wear this style. Interestingly, it seems to frequently be reserved for the more elegant occasions: parties and balls.
In general, dresses of the late 18th century overlapped and then pinned closed in the center front (Waugh, 77). Most of Poldark‘s upper class dresses do the same, except…
There is one upper-class dress in Poldark that laces shut in front, worn by Ruth Teague at a party:
I can count on one hand the number of laced-front bodice 1780s dresses — two in fact (although if there’s two, there’s probably more):
Unfortunately two (Elizabeth’s striped party dresses) have a back-laced closure, which just wasn’t ever done in the period. It makes no logical sense to close a dress in back when it has an open skirt in front, and 18th-century people were all about logic.
Another variation worth noting at this point is what we modernly call a “roundgown.” This is a dress that does NOT have a separate underskirt. Instead, it has a “fall front” or “apron front”: The one skirt is sewn to the bodice from side front, around back, to side front. The front is attached to a separate waistband, and there are openings at each side front so you can lower the front of the top of the skirt to get into it (Buck, 45). (Need a visual? Check Thread-Headed Snippet‘s roundgown entry.) Here are two 1780s roundgowns:
Many of Elizabeth and Verity’s more everyday dresses seem to be made in this style (it’s possible they’re just being worn with matching petticoats, but I can’t see the line of an overskirt):
At least one of these (Elizabeth’s blue woven floral dress) is cut with the all-in-one center back bodice/skirt discussed above. The rest of the dresses have the fully separate bodice and skirt.
We’ll talk a lot more about different dress styles in a minute, but first I want to talk about something important: silhouette!
18th-Century Silhouette & Underpinnings Vs. the Poldark Ladies
The biggest weirdness (and no, I’m not claiming this is a “jump up and down and set the thing on fire” issue), is the skirt silhouettes. I assume the filmmakers wanted to keep things simple and streamlined to show that we’re out in the sticks and don’t have a lot of cash flow, but as you’ll see, the skirt silhouette of the 1780s was much larger than you see on screen in Poldark. Here’s a range of paintings showing upper-middle- to upper-class British women to illustrate:
That’s not to say you don’t ever see a narrower silhouette (like the fourth image), but even that is still fuller than Poldark‘s ladies:
In the 1780s, wider skirts was accomplished primarily by wearing what was called a “rump” or “bum,” a stuffed or cork pad worn around the hips to floof out the skirts (Late 18th-Century Skirt Supports). The caricature “The Bum Shop” completely over-exaggerates the shapes, but you can at least see the variety of items that were worn under skirts for a larger hip shape.
They also wore more than one petticoat and/or quilted petticoats, and they used crisper fabrics for a bouffant effect.
Of course, dresses of this era were worn over what we today would call “corsets,” and they would call “stays.” These are boned, sleeveless garments that shape the torso into the smooth cone shape typical of the period:
Clearly Poldark‘s upper-class ladies are wearing stays with a good silhouette, and that’s an important point in their favor!
18th-Century Fabrics & Prints in Poldark‘s Costumes
While some of Poldark‘s upper-class wardrobes are in solids, there are also a number that are in prints or woven patterns. All three options were fashionable in the 1780s, so let’s get more specific.
Cotton (and occasionally linen) prints were hugely popular in this era (18th-Century Printed Cotton Fabrics). Due to the dyes and methods available, they were usually in shades of red or blue (which could range through purple and brown), although you do sometimes see other colors like yellow or green. White or cream was the most usual background, but they could also have colored backgrounds. They generally came in one of three motifs: trailing vines with small flowers, individual floral sprigs, or busy floral prints.
It’s interesting to note that Elizabeth only wears a cotton print in her flashback, 1770s scenes. Verity is frequently in dull, beige-y cotton prints that work to make her look wallpaper-y.
There are two prints that I question:
Of course, there were patterns in other kinds of fabric. The older, more established (and fading) fashion was for floral woven patterned silks. These tended to come in similar patterns to the cotton prints, particularly sprigs and trailing florals:
Both Elizabeth and Verity wear woven patterned fabric in small florals, which aren’t horrible but aren’t quite the look of the period. Elizabeth also has a circular floral print that seems couch-y to me.
Woven stripes were also hugely popular in the 1780s (Rothstein, Four Hundred Years of Fashion, 30). They nicely accented the fitted, streamlined fashions:
Poldark picks up on this trend for its upper-class ladies, particularly for Ruth:
Dress fabrics could also be embroidered. In general, these followed the sprig and trailing florals seen in prints, but there were sometimes embroidered borders as well:
Both Elizabeth and Verity have nicely embroidered fancy dresses (and I appreciate that they avoided the modern upholstery fabrics seen so frequently these days, like in Farewell, My Queen!):
18th-Century Costume Details & Variations Seen in Poldark
As in any era, there are a number of variations seen in fashionable styles. Poldark nicely captures a few of them and misses a few others:
Menswear Inspiration: Taking their cue from Englishwomen’s riding and sports clothes, menswear-inspired clothing became all the rage for daily wear (Ribeiro, Art of Dress, 68). Women wore riding habits for fashionable daywear, as well as redingotes and dresses and jackets with menswear-inspired details. The “redingote” is a dress that was styled on a man’s coat (“redingote” comes from the French corruption of “riding coat”). It’s a dress with tailored stylings, often made from more menswear-ish fabrics.
Elizabeth has one redingote in dull purple and one in blue, both in velvet, while Verity has one in grey stripes, and Ruth Teague one in grey-blue. It might be nice if they had included a riding habit too, just for variety, but redingotes are the newer (and hugely popular) fashion, so I’m not complaining (Ribeiro, Art of Dress, 67).
Verity’s redingote in particular reminds me of this one at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
Then there’s Ruth’s stripey dress, which is sort-of redingote-y:
It reminds me a lot of this jacket and petticoat at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:
The one element missing from Poldark‘s menswear styles is what should be worn underneath, which was a high-necked shirt and cravat in a men’s style (Blackman, “Walking Amazons”):
The (so-called) “zone front“*: in which there is a separate overbodice front piece that slopes away from the center front neckline out to the waist, showing an underbodice (“waistcoat”). This cutaway style was hugely popular in the 1780s, and could either indicate a specific dress style that was cut with this line (like the robe à la polonaise), or could simply be added as a menswear touch to a nightgown, riding habit, redingote, etc. (The 18th-Century Robe à la Polonaise).
*Because it’s my life’s work, I need to clearly state that the term “zone” is entirely modern! There’s no period term to describe this style, other than an “open” bodice or dress (but earlier, V-shaped openings over stomachers — like on a française — were also called “open.” So, we’re screwed. I’m going to call it “cutaway” here as a shorthand).
Aside from Verity’s redingote, the cutaway overbodice style is particularly worn on Poldark‘s upper-class ladies on their fancier dresses. I’m thinking the filmmakers saw it as an extra detail that would set these apart from the more everyday?
Jackets were hugely popular in the 1780s (Ribeiro, Art of Dress, 69). Ruth is the only one of Poldark‘s upper-class ladies to get one, meaning this style is under-represented in Poldark‘s upper-class wardrobes:
Two of Verity’s dresses have the kind of little tails you might expect to see on jackets. They’re cute but kind of random:
And then Verity has her sort-of Brunswick, sort-of caraco à la polonaise. Here we go — a “Brunswick” was a hooded, high-necked, long-sleeved traveling ensemble most popular in the 1760s (18th-Century Brunswicks and Jesuits); it would be on its way out of fashion in the 1780s. The caraco à la polonaise is a hip-length jacket cut without a waist seam, with the cutaway front and waistcoat (aka “
zone” [shudder]) described above (The 18th Century Robe à la Polonaise).
Verity’s ensemble looks like a mash-up between these two. It doesn’t have the cutaway (
zone) front of the Palazzo Mocenigo ensemble, but otherwise is similarly cut (and its use of matelassé, a quilted fabric, is reminiscent of the Mocenigo polonaise’s quilted fabric). It does have the hood seen on the Brunswick, but hoods were frequently added to polonaises in the period.
Sheer gowns: Sheer dresses were massively popular in this era. The trend started with the robe en chemise, a sheer, gathered, cotton dress (usually white) that derived from styles worn in the Caribbean (What Is a Chemise à la Reine, Anyway?). This led to a trend for numerous styles made from sheer cottons, often in white (and relatively impractical for cold English weather, but what we do for fashion, eh?):
There’s one dress that picks up on this trend in Poldark: one of Verity’s party dresses. It’s a really interesting dress in a pale pink cotton with gathered center front bodice, little tails in back, and a gathered ruffle along the skirt openings. I can’t think of any specific styles that this resembles, but there were enough variations — and sheer, gathered dresses were popular enough — that this checks out for me. (I also love that Verity gets the most interesting dress in the series!)
Looped up skirts: Called “retroussée” in French, but without any specific term in England, overskirts were often worn draped “up” or “back” in the 1780s. This trend really took off in the 1770s with the popularity of the robe à la polonaise, but could be worn with just about any style (The 18th-Century Robe à la Polonaise). It was fading in the 1780s, and a long, trained look was more à la mode.
Since it was a style on the way out, it makes some sense that we don’t see it too often in Poldark. Both Ruth and Elizabeth have formal dresses worn looped up, which makes dancing easier (something noted in 18th-century fashion magazines). Verity’s redingote skirt is up (getting the skirt out of the way for riding?).
Stomachers: Dresses with stomachers were fashionable from the early part of the 18th century through the 1770s. Both the sack (or “robe à la française” in French) and the nightgown were usually worn with an open, V front bodice over a fill-in called a “stomacher” during these years (Waugh, 69). Here’s this earlier style of nightgown:
Here’s what that stomacher would look like:
This is worth mentioning because Ruth wears a dress in this style to a party later in the season. It’s not implausible — I’m sure there were still stomacher gowns kicking around in the 1780s — but it is a bit dated, and thus seems inappropriate for such a (comparatively) fashion-forward character:
Mourning wear: While we tend to associate the whole “black worn for mourning” thing with the Victorians, 18th-century people also did the same (although the rules weren’t quite as detailed and stringent). I wrote about this more in one of my Outlander posts, so check that out if you’re interested!
There is a funeral (I’m not saying whose!) in Poldark, and various characters are appropriately dressed in black.
Maternity wear: There isn’t a ton of information out there about pregnancy wear, so I’m not going to get too hardcore about this. Mostly I wanted to make the point that they did, of course, get pregnant, and so they did, of course, have clothes that accommodated this (Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal, 152-4)!
Thus, when Elizabeth gets Very Pregnant, and is recovering from childbirth, her loose gowns seem very appropriate to me.
18th-Century Accessories on Poldark‘s Ladies
Although the trend for ruffle and flowers and delicate Rococo elements had passed, the 1780s were All About Froof in the form of poufy fichus, gauzy aprons, and big ruffly caps or hair accessories. They were also big fans of wide, contrasting color sashes:
This is the other miss in Poldark — while there are some small fichus, and occasional hat-wearing, there’s little-to-no froof, frills, gauze, poufs, sashes, and the other requisite accessories.
So, that’s my rundown on the most upper-class of ladies in Poldark. Stay tuned for my future looks at the older generation, followed by the middle-class ladies!
Works (not online) Cited
Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: the Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.
Blackman, Callie. “Walking Amazons: The Development of the Riding Habit in England During the Eighteenth Century.” Costume, Vol 35, 2001.
Buck, Anne. Dress in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979.
Ribeiro, Aileen. The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France, 1750 to 1820. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Rothstein, Natalie, ed. Four Hundred Years of Fashion. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992.
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1600-1930. New York : Theatre Arts Books, 1968.